Daffodils: great songs, shame about the story

The pitch for Daffodils really can’t have been too hard. “That Mamma Mia, it was mean, wasn’t it?” “Bloody oath, it was!” “Sweet as, then, bro, chur.”

It must have been something like that, because Daffodils, a film that has an awful lot to like, is both gloriously and self-consciously a very, very New Zealand film.

Rose McIvor and George Mason in Daffodils

At its heart is a very simple, straightforward love story between Rose (Rose McIvor) and Eric (George Mason). In the deepest 1960s, George is driving through Hamilton Domain when he sees a pretty little thing walking — stumbling — through the daffodils. He does the decent thing, puts her in his car, and offers to drive her home. Home is Otorohanga, where lives a mother who immediately takes against obvious wastrel George. The story arc from there is sufficiently predictable that I shan’t waste too many more keystrokes on it. Instead, let’s talk about what makes it more interesting. Kimbra plays the now-grown daughter of Eric, who we first meet on his deathbed, with Maisie saying goodbye to him. We then see Maisie, on stage with her band, singing the songs that form the backdrop to Rose and Eric’s story, and the interplay between Kimbra’s, and Eric’s and Rose’s, readings of songs is an effective way of tying the contemporary to the period-piece drama.

And these songs the soundtrack to New Zealand in the 60s and 70s and 80s. The track listing makes an entirely agreeable NZ playlist: There Is No Depression In New Zealand drives the film’s timeframe forward through a several-year montage — of course it does — while The Mutton Birds’ Anchor Me is beautiful as McIvor sings it, the song playing over Rose’s interior monologue, a very effective device, and The Clean’s Tally Ho is perhaps the film’s most powerful musical moment, McIvor’s voice taking on a more and more aggressive edge as the frustration Rose feels with Eric’s wastrel ways grows, while Language, playing as the first signs of the couple’s fracturing plays out, sees Crowded House give Mason his musical highlight. He can manage the upbeat bits of a quite jolly reading of Counting The Beat, but unlike The Swingers’ original, Daffodils puts a bit of a croon into the song, and that’s just a tad beyond Mason’s range. Ray Columbus & The Invaders’ She’s A Mod is possibly the only song performed by its original artists; Tally Ho, oddly, isn’t (at least as far as Apple Music seems to imagine) on the soundtrack album.

So why isn’t this the much better film that it should have been? The structure of Kimbra’s Maisie singing the songs that her parents had shared with her — she even introduces No Depression as “a song my dad taught me” — is a pleasingly engaging device, and Kimbra is a wonderful singer, of course. So, for that matter, is McIvor. The same, sadly, can’t quite be said of Mason. Part of the problem is that he’s given the wrong songs to sing. While, as has been mentioned, Tally Ho allows McIvor to act as well as sing, her clipped tones as she sings the title phrase carrying just the right amount of acid and despair, and No Depression lets Mason simply get a bit stroppy, as that song always should, Language — at least as he begins it, much more slowly and achingly than Dave Dobbyn better than to bother with — is just beyond him.

And Rose. At the heart of the film is Rose, and so at the heart of the film’s weaknesses is Rose. McIvor is a wholly acceptable actor, but in Daffodils she has been handed a woefully underwritten role — indeed, her character, for much of the film, quite literally has no lines written for her, as she simpers around her husband. McIvor does what she can, but there are limits, and Rose is sufficiently weak that it’s hard to sympathise with her, no matter how strongly McIvor sings Rose’s songs — and, to be fair, she does sing them strongly — it’s not enough to rescue her character.

George, on the other hand — well, it’s George’s film. He’s a bit of a tosser, but Mason plays him with enough charm, all poor-man’s-Matthew-McConaughey smile and wonderfully dated Angus Deayton floppy haircut (and better not to mention the 80s suits; their only defence is period accuracy), to make him a lad, not just a waster.

And so the story plays itself out to a quite predictable ending. Your verdict on the film will depend on your affection for its songs. A Kiwi audience, raised on a steady diet of Dobbyn and Runga and Finns and Blam Blam Blam, will perhaps be predisposed to liking it. Although it’s not overstated, its setting, in the last century, in the City Of The Future, will win it praise from Hamiltonians just for the number of times cars go back and forth across the Fairfield Bridge. Despite the Kiwi goodwill it will, inevitably and somewhat deservedly, win, I’m not sure how much of a winner it will be beyond the Waikato; it’s hard to see the rest of the world falling at its feet.

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